Earthquake Hits Tonga...Tongans Don't Care....
This article appeared in the Courier Express and Main Line Life.
As news of the 7.8-calibur earthquake that hit Tonga shook the Western news world, we barely felt an aftershock in Vava’u. Perhaps all of our emotions were spent during the 90-second “mofuike” (mo-fu-ee-kay).
At 2 am on Thursday, May 4th—Crown Prince Tupou To’a’s birthday, a national holiday—I laid down to sleep after celebrating my day off by drinking kava at a fundraiser for a high school in the remote Tongan island of Niuatoputapu.
A little more than two hours later, I awoke from my couch to a rumble that I couldn’t explain as the kava disagreeing with my stomach. The room trembled. My dog, Moa, jumped to her feet and looked at me with a hint of confusion in her eyes (well, more so than normal, anyway). I knew it was an earthquake.
I had a flashback to a few months before, when Tongan friends were visiting and alerted me to a rumble. The ten-second earthquake was slight, but still exhilarating to an East Coast boy.
Back in real-time, the quake raged on past the 30-second mark. It felt as though my house would dance down the street. You could hear my tables and cupboard rattling as the earth vibrated through them.
40-seconds: Moa gave me one last glance, realized that I was of no help, and dove through her doggy door to find safety outdoors.
50-seconds: The electricity switched off. My table tipped, sending books, magazines, and a wind-up fishing game crashing to the floor.
60-seconds: Stop drop and roll? Run outside? Climb under a table? What does one do to be safe during an earthquake? Panicky, I came up blank. I should have followed Moa.
70-seconds: I started to wonder what happens in a large earthquake. Did the ground open up in Frisco? Yikes. I simply continued to lay on my couch.
80-seconds: Still shaking. But then, the mofuike slowed to a stop. I collected myself. My house was intact, as far as I could tell in the pitch black. I scrambled to my feet and felt around for a flashlight. Each of the three I own were out of batteries, of course. Clumsily, I put in new batteries and flashed around my house. Spices that toppled from my fridge top, cupboards opened, pictures frames knocked face down, but no real damage.
Venturing outside, I made my way around the dark road, expecting to see toppled houses and destruction. Yet, everything was as it should have been at 4:30 am—calm.
Visiting my neighbors, we all agreed that it was a large, frightening earthquake. After five minutes, it was back to normal conversation. Unreal: a few minutes before, I thought my house would fall through a crack in the Earth, and now it was barely even fodder for conversation. I visited another neighbor, but they’ve already gone back to sleep. With a shrug of my shoulders, I made my way back to my (intact) abode. One more oddity: there was no sign of Moa.
I woke up at 9 am to a member of my youth group calling me to start work on our video store, our partner project with the readers of the Courier Express. Rolling over, hours after she left, I saw that Moa had just returned. I was off to work.
With crowbar and hammer in hand, we dismantled the former town hall kitchen, making room to build shelves for our new video store. Running out of patience because no one mentioned the earthquake, I finally brought it up. Again, we agreed that it was big, and a little disconcerting, but my companions were bored with the topic and quickly got back to tearing apart the interior.
At lunch time, we piled in a truck and were driving towards town when my Peace Corps Supervisor ‘Alaipuke ‘Esau pulled us over. Finally confirmation that it was a big deal. ‘Alaipuke informed me that it registered 7.8 on the Richter Scale. To put this into perspective, the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco measured 6.9 on the Richter Scale, caused 63 deaths, 3,757 injuries and over $6 billion in property damage. In Tonga’s earthquake, estimated by some organizations as a full point stronger than the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, there were no deaths, two reported injuries and a minor amount of structural damage in the Ha’apai Island Group.
We parted ways, my supervisor to check on the other volunteers, and us, to fill our stomachs. Things were slow in town, only because of the national holiday. However, not even the Crown Prince’s birthday, let alone a silly earthquake, could close the Vava’u Curry Stand: curry-flavored mutton flaps over boiled cassava. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!
Putting in our order, two Peace Corps volunteers approached and frantically told me that Tonga had made world news headlines with the earthquake. Realizing that I could very well have two worried parents in DuBois, I called home. Only then did I learn of the tsunami warning that never materialized due to a power failure.
Considering the disastrous December 2004 tsunami that struck in the Indian Ocean, this certainly warranted the extensive media coverage it received. However, it caused no outrage in Tonga, the place where the mistake had the potential to turn into tragedy.
Days later, in reply to my email describing the earthquake, Gian Rodriguez, a friend who is employed as the Assistant Director of Communications for the Golf Association of Philadelphia, advised that there were very few animal deaths in the tsunami. They fled to higher ground. He closed with some sound advice: “Next time, don’t just lay there, follow your dog!” Maybe Moa’s look—that I judged as confused—was simply out of frustration that her Dad wouldn’t accompany her on the journey to safety.
As the day continued on, cruising the Vava’u back roads, a gentleman from our village flagged us down from the roadside. He needed our assistance in carrying a pig carcass to Makave. The animal met an early fate for wandering into his plantation. C’mon, it was eating his root crops. Earthquake or not, Thursday, May 4th was just another day in Tonga.